Subcontractors Can Be Jointly Liable for Contractors’ Labor Law Violations

Otter: “He can’t do that to our pledges.”

Boon: “Only we can do that to our pledges.”

–Animal House, 1978

Subcontractors are like pledges in a way. They have to abide by the rules that apply to the primary contractor. If they fail to do so, they are responsible. Fairness isn’t really the issue.

A recent case shows how subcontractors can be held responsible when a primary contractor improperly fails to bargain with a union. In 2014, a contractor won a bid to take over a Job Corps Youth Training Center. The Center had been a union facility, and the contract was set to expire right around the same time the contractor took over operations. The contractor brought in a subcontractor, MJLM, to handle wellness, recreation,

The contractor initiated a new hire process, and some union employees were rehired while others were not. The contractor imposed new terms and conditions of employment, disregarding the progressive discipline and other procedures that had been negotiated into the prior union contract.

The union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, alleging that the contractor engaged in various unfair labor practices, including making unilateral changes to terms of employment without bargaining and improperly discharging various union employees. The Board’s General Counsel amended the complaint to allege that MJLM was equally responsible for any violations as a joint employer.

MJLM fought back, claiming that it was along for the ride, but the NLRB — and ultimately the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — found otherwise. The Board and the Court found that MJLM was a joint employer because it was involved in the hiring process, had influence over wages, assisted in setting holiday schedules, and helped to operate the center.

MJLM, as a subcontractor, was found to be a joint employer and therefore equally responsible for any unfair labor practices committed by the contractor.

When I read the case, I assumed the case was decided under the controversial new Browning-Ferris standard that allows for a finding of joint employment if there was merely indirect control. I was wrong. The Board (and Court) ruled that even under the old standard requiring direct exercise of control, the subcontractor was a joint employer.

Businesses should remember that joint employment can result in liability for violations by others. A subcontractor can be held responsible for unfair labor practices by a contractor. In this case, both the contractor and subcontractor were required to recognize the union, undo their unilaterally imposed practices, commence bargaining, and reinstate and make whole the employees who were not rehired.

MJLM was just as responsible as the contractor. To paraphrase the Court’s decision, with apologies to Dean Wormer, “The time has come for someone to put his foot down, and that foot is me.”


© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Drivers Rack Up Misclassification Settlements, While GrubHub Fights Back

In 1984, the Cars released a sad-sounding song called Drive. I assume it was about a guy longing for a girl, but it’s too depressing to listen to the whole thing. Throughout the song, Ric Ocasek asks “Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?” (Why the long face, Ric? Kidding.)

If you use a ride hailing service, chances are it’s an independent contractor driver who’s gonna drive you home. But in several high profile lawsuits, drivers have challenged their independent contractor status. While these suits have been in the news for years, there have been a recent flurry of high dollar settlements. Earlier this year, Lyft agreed to pay $27 million to a class of 95,000 drivers in California and Door Dash agreed to pay $5 million. Just last week, Postmates agreed to pay $8.75 million.

Notably, none of these settlements resolved the issue of whether drivers for these companies are employees or independent contractors. The settlements involved payouts and agreed-upon changes in company policies, but none of the drivers were reclassified as employees.

GrubHub, on the other hand, has taken a misclassification case to trial. The case being tried is not a class action, and only about $600 is at issue. But the case may have significant ramifications for the status of independent contractor driviers, both at GrubHub and potentially elsewhere, and the case is being watched closely. (You can read more here and here.) As of this morning (9/18/17), the case is still in trial and there has been no verdict.

The point to remember is that companies who use an independent contractor model face a substantial risk of being sued. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are aggressive in recruiting contractors to file lawsuits that challenge their status as independent contractors, arguing that they should be paid as employees instead.

Companies using a contractor model should be proactive. Take steps to evaluate these relationships now. Adjust the facts and contract language to best position your business to defend against a misclassification challenge.

Independent contractor misclassification litigation is active and should be watched closely — unlike the Cars, who broke up in 1988 (for the most part, anyway; you can read more here in the unlikely event you care about the current status of the Cars).

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Who is the Next “Miss Classified”? Here’s How I Would Award the Prize.

IMG_1107I received an email this week from a worker claiming he was “Miss Classified.” I did not know there was a pageant for that, but I suppose congratulations were probably due. I politely responded that I only represent companies, not individuals, in disputes relating to independent contractor misclassification, and I wished him luck.

But then I started thinking, What if there was a pageant? What would it take to be crowned Miss Classified?

I came up with a few criteria.

To be named Miss Classified, a contestant would probably have a job that requires her to work a set daily schedule, with little flexibility. She’d have to ask a supervisor for time off (including to enter this pageant).

A fixed schedule suggests employment when assessing Independent Contractor vs. Employee, so I’d award that contestant a point toward becoming Miss Classified. If the supervisor denies the request for time off, I’d award an extra point toward Miss Classified status — but sadly, if denied the day off, this worthy contestant might not show up for the pageant. [🤔]

I’d award another point toward being named Miss Classified if she uses company tools and equipment. If she does office work, she’d get points if she uses someone else’s desk and computer, performs her work at the company’s primary place of business, and has a company badge. I’d award bonus points if she has a company email address.

Instead of a swimsuit competition, I’d have contestants reveal what they wear to work. Anyone wearing a swimsuit is at the wrong pageant and would be asked to leave. But anyone wearing company uniform or logo would get a point. I’d have an exception, though. If the company shirt says “Company – Authorized Contractor,” no points.

For the talent portion of the Miss Classified pageant, I’d ask candidates how they learned their special skill. I’d award no points to anyone who became licensed and trained on their own time and on their own dime. But if they learned their craft from the company they are working for, I’d award a point toward being named Miss Classified. If the company paid for the license or training, I’d award another point.

My pageant would have a monetary award for the winner (let’s just call it damages), but before awarding any economic prizes, I’d ask the contestants about their current financial situation. Are you economically reliant on one company for all your compensation? If yes, two points. That’s a candidate who might be worthy of the title Miss Classified.

On the other hand, a candidate gets no points if she performs work for several companies and advertises her services in the marketplace. Anyone using a personal business card and website to advertise her services to the public gets no points. Anyone who is simultaneously working for one company and that company’s direct competitors will be disqualified from the competition. That person is probably not Miss Classified.

I’d hold my competition in California. That would be the most likely place for someone to be named Miss Classified. California has all sorts of state laws that would influence the outcome of my competition.

I’d have Simon Cowell judge. Not for any good reason though. I just think that would be good for ratings.

And the winner is … hopefully not anyone performing services for your company!

(In case you were wondering, this would NOT be the among the world’s strangest pageants. But these are.)

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Irma, Harvey and Force Majeure Clauses: What Does It All Mean?

What is Force majeure hurricane legal law irma harvey contracts IMG_1108Your contracts with staffing agencies and consultants probably include a bunch of legalese boilerplate mumbo jumbo at the end, which no one ever reads. One of those standard clauses is a “force majeure” clause. That’s French for “Skim over this clause.”

Companies affected by Irma and Harvey, however, may have good reason to check their contracts for these clauses. “Force majeure” means, literally, superior force.

These clauses typically say that So-and-so is excused from performing under the contract in the event of uncontrollable circumstances, such as war, terrorism, hurricanes, voodoo curses, other Acts of God, or anything caused by Pedro Cerrano and Joboo’s Cult (Major League) [Ed. Note: “Hats for Bats!”].

These clauses excuse non-performance that would otherwise be a breach, if the breach is caused by these types of conditions. Suppose you have a hotel in Tampa. You kept the hotel open during Irma because your building is sturdy and can provide respite to residents in evacuation areas. South Floridians who drove north fill your hotel, and it’s sold out. Your housekeeping and restaurant services are outsourced and provided by a separate services company. The services company is required to supply labor sufficient to staff the hotel’s housekeeping and restaurant functions. The day before the hurricane, however, no one shows up to work.

Did the services company breach the contract? Under normal circumstances, probably yes. With a hurricane bearing down on the area, however, the force majeure clause may excuse the failure to perform. A failure that might otherwise constitute a breach may be excused under a force majeure clause.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Court Serves Up Reminder that Contractors Can Be Properly Classified and Misclassified – At The Same Time.

elephant-reminder pennsylvania court joint employment joint empoyer construction workplace misclassification act

A recurring theme in this blog has been that when trying to determine Who Is My Employee?, there are different tests under different laws. Different tests can yield different results.

A recent court decision from Pennsylvania emphasizes this point. In the Keystone State (proud home of Dunder Mifflin and Hershey Park), contruction workers are considered employees for workers compensation purposes unless they (i) have a written contract, (ii) have a place of business separate from their general contractor’s site, and (iii) have liability insurance of at least $50,000. This strict test is courtesy of the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (CWMA), an Act whose name shows a disappointing lack of creativity.

I might have gone with “Construction Occupation Workers’ Act Regarding Designations In Classifying Employees” (COWARDICE) or “Law About Misclassifying Employees” (LAME) or, if I was hungry for shellfish, then maybe “Construction Law About Misclassification for Builders And Keeping Employees Safe” (CLAMBAKES).

Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, that whack-a-doodle misclassification test for construction workers. As my loyal readers know, that’s not even close to the tests used for determining Employee vs. Independent Contractor under most other laws. Other more common tests, like Right to Control Tests or Economic Realities Tests, rely on entirely different factors and weigh them, rather than requiring three specific factors to be met.

The court noted that the CWMA test was very different from the common law test and that the result under one test was not necessarily going to lead to the same result under the other test.

So remember, the task of deciding whether a worker is misclassified is hard and no fun. The task of writing names for laws, however, should be embraced with joy and creativity.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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When to Embrace Joint Employment, and When to Run Like Hell (Pink Floyd, 1979)

Joint employment risks dangers choices joint employer IMG_1101Life is full of serious questions. For example, Should I stay or should I go? (The Clash, 1982). Or, Will you love me forever? (practically every song ever, but for now, we’ll go with Meatloaf in Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, 1977).

When engaging non-employee workers, businesses must also confront a serious question: Embrace joint employment, or try to avoid it? (Frank Zappa confronted a different kind of serious question in Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?, 1979, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.)

Many of my posts have been geared toward strategies for trying to avoid joint employment. There is another way, though. Sometimes, it may be better to embrace joint employment. But know the pros and cons.

Here are some things to consider:

Pros:

So, you’re thinking of embracing joint employment? That’s certainly an option. If you go in this direction, you can exert all the control you want over your non-employee workers. Tell them how to do the work, supervise them, discipline them, make them follow all your rules. Let them have a company email address and fancy name badge. If the workers are going to be joint employees anyway, there’s no reason to hold back.

You still have the benefit of having another company handling the administrative burdens like payroll and onboarding. You avoid adding to employee headcount, and you probably maintain some extra flexibility in setting staffing levels if your business is experiencing ebbs and flows.

Cons:

The biggest downside to joint employment is the risk of joint liability for errors you didn’t make. Did the staffing agency underpay overtime? Or miscalculate hours worked? Or fail to pay for time worked off the clock? Or hire illegal aliens? Or fail to file proper tax forms?

You get the picture. If you are a joint employer, your business is equally responsible for the consequences of any of these errors, even though you had nothing to do with them.

Yes, you can include an indemnity provision in your contract, but that should provide only limited comfort. Is the staffing agency adequately insured? Will they stand behind their promise? Do you want the hassle of defending an audit or lawsuit, then trying to rely on a contract to recover your losses? (Read more on the dangers of joint employment here.)

Joint employment can still be full of nasty little surprises, even when you go into it with your eyes open to the risks.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Tip of the Day: Set Up a Gatekeeper

door-gate-entrance-gateway

What you don’t know can hurt you.

Claims of independent contractor misclassification can sneak up on companies that don’t even know they have a problem.

Businesses usually treat the retention of contractors as an expenditure, not an increase in headcount. Since no new employees are being hired, Human Resources Departments and Legal Departments often have no idea when operations managers have retained contractors–sometimes at distant locations.

Operations managers usually don’t know the risks of independent contractor misclassification. Why would they? They don’t know what to look for in contracts or what words to avoid. They need a job to be done, and they find someone to do it. End of story, right? No! It feels great if you can trust your operations managers to solve their own problems, but if this is what happens at your company, you may have hidden misclassification risks.

One way to prevent these unforeseen risks is to create an internal gatekeeping process. Require approval by a point person before any manager can retain an independent contractor. The same rules would  apply for outsourcing any work to a consultant or an agency. This gatekeeper would be trained to spot potential misclassification risks.

The gatekeeper could approve or disapprove requests to retain contractors and could guide managers on best practices for overseeing contractors’ work without exerting too much control.

Summary:  Large organizations can benefit from designating a gatekeeper who must approve all requests to retain independent contractors. The gatekeeper process can help to ensure that misclassification risks are evaluated and controlled proactively.

© 2017 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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